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I’m thrilled to start this interview series of free lance opera singers from all over the world. Here in Sweden we have an incredibly strong tradition of singing in choirs. Plus a wonderful heritage of splendid, world renown opera singers. From this fertile soil grows a fabulous crowd of artists, mostly unheard of by the masses.
Gunilla Stephen, International Opera Singer outside Musikverein in Vienna, beginning of April 2014.
Today I want to introduce my Swedish colleague Gunilla Stephen. We met many, many years ago while we where both studying with Swedish Court Singer Berith Lindholm. One thing about Gunilla’s journey is that it includes so many aspects and challenges of our trade. I think it will be of great value for you to get to know her story.
Also, make sure you take the time to listen to her interpretations of Isolde and The Fiery Angel!
When we started talking I first explained some of my thoughts about why I wanted to do this. Mentioning how the world perceives “The Opera Singer” as living the glamorous life, Gunilla started to nod her head feverishly, while laughing.
Gunilla: “Oh yes, that one, that!”
Gunilla was born into a family with no special musical skills. But they had a piano and she also started singing in church at a very early age. As with so many Swedish musicians she made the almost mandatory journey through Adolf Fredriks music school and some fine choirs. At 21 she auditioned for The Opera College in Gothenburg and was accepted.
Gunilla: Actually I think that was too early. Now when I think about it, it was too early. But I didn’t think so then. I just wanted to sing! I wanted to have a career. That was the only thing on my mind.
Off To Germany And Marriage
So at 25 she graduated and got her first contract at Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera). No small thing for a young debutant! Here it becomes interesting and already life is playing its cards. At 25 she met a diplomat at the Swedish embassy in Berlin and got married! 1988 the first child arrived and 1990 the family moved to Brussels, due to her husband’s work.
Gunilla: There was a lot of concert sining during those years. I was somewhat tired of Germany. In 1985 I came to Germany as a trainee. I had spent a lot time in Germany. And I really wanted to…
The children came quite early and I was only 30 when I already had two children. Well… Yes.. I.. Those were tough years. They were tough!
And my husband worked a lot even when we moved to Sweden. I was home with the kids. You know… That was not my initial thought about how my life would turn out… [sociallocker id=”2916″]
Gunilla: In the beginning I was sort of happy about it. I thought it wouldn’t be any big thing. I had a few years when I didn’t sing that much.
Then I had another contract in Germany. Those were some heavy years. There was a lot of auditioning, a lot of travel a lot of not having time for my family. A lot of guilt. And difficult to have time for my own voice.
She look up towards the ceiling. Laughs. Shrugs her shoulder and says: It’s a long time agobecausethey are so big now. But it was tough!
Stella: When you said It was not my initial thought, what was that initial thought to begin with?
Royal Opera in Stockholm. 2002. Singing Renata in The Fiery Angel by Prokofiev.
Gunilla: I never thought I would have a family and children. Possibly 10 years later. But I became pregnant one year after I finished school! I think I was the first one in our class to become a mother. But my only goal was to sing, to have a career.
Yet I did have a career. I came to Berlin. I got wonderful roles. I mean, I started on that big stage from the beginning. But I had not counted on… (Laughs) to be a mother within a year, if I put it that way.
But after accepting the facts I also realized it wasn’t too bad after all. I was only 26 and the kind of heavy voice I have isn’t fully developed at that age. I thought my children would be bigger when I was ready to start singing what I really desired to sing.
She laughs again almost looks a little embarrassed and continues:
Gunilla: It’s only that you think you can plan so much, and then you CAN’T!
Pregnancy Changed The Voice
Stella: It’s common that female singers try to wait having children. I totally agree with you. I thought wow, that is early since many wait until after 30, or almost 40 until they become pregnant.
Gunilla: Yes, and then you’re even more into your career actually. Unless your very lyric, then you might calm down at that age. But many do sing a lot in those years. Today I’m so happy I have children at age 26 and 21.
Stella: Yes, in this phase you don’t need to care for them any longer. Alright, so you had a career, you had children and a lot of recitals. Now this transformation process of your voice started. Can you tell us what happened with you, your voice and where did that take you?
Gunilla: It was always easy and fun for me singing high dramatic parts. But at the same time I also had a kind of dark voice and a lot of depth too. During my studies I was labeled alto.
Hitting top notes was never a problem. But I did have technical problems with the passagio. I really struggled there. Therefore it came natural that I developed my middle and lower register. That made it even more difficult to reach the higher registers.
Then after I had my children it was like my voice flattened out. I don’t know how to explain that, but it grew together in a way. And suddenly it became easy and loads of fun in those registers.
That was the time i started seeing Berith Lindholm. It was wonderful with someone not telling me I sang too loud!
Here we both burst out laughing! You know the way only two trained singers can Laugh Out Loud, unapologetic!!
Gunilla: Everything doesn’t have to go through Mozart. I’m not a Mozart singer, for me it all turned into knots in my throat doing that.
At these times, the end of the 90’s, we still lived under that yoke of Birgit Nilsson. I was even told that it was dangerous to sing that repertory unless you were her!But Berith sung that repertory and had even sung together with Birgit, so it was nice to see there are people with my kind of voice.
We lived in Copenhagen at this time and I sang with the opera chorus in Malmö. That’s when I heard they where going to stage a Ring in Stockholm and I got an audition.
It resulted in them calling me, offering the role of Brünnhilde. I almost fainted! I had never sung a soprano part before and now they wanted me to sing Brünnhilde, in Stockholm!
It did not happen due to a conflict with the director. But instead they substituted with Electra, which is usually the last you sing in a dramatic career.
At this point we are both laughing so hard Gunilla starts coughing.
Gunilla Stephen Breaks Through!
The breakthrough as Brünnhilde in Karlstad. 1998
Gunilla: Anyway, I got to sing Brünnhilde in Karlstad, received SvD’s grand Opera Price and from there everything just rolled on with lots of work.But I wasn’t really prepared.
I had sung Hänsel, Third Lady, art song, and had had a sniff at Kundry. But suddenly I was to sing Isolde, Brünnhilde, Electra. I couldn’t deal with it peacefully.
So I got stressed out and thought I had to practice all the time. I almost killed myself I practiced so much.And those are roles you can’t sing all the time because you get tired.
So I got tired and then I got nervous because of that. Then I got scared something was wrong and I had to practice some more. I got into a spiral that ate from my reservoirs. I had engagements everywhere, it was almost too much. It would have been nice with periods of less obligations.
Stella: A question, did you have a feeling you couldn’t say no? If so, can you expand on that experience?
Gunilla: No, I could not! Of course I had heard you should say no now and then, but I didn’t feel I had that choice.
I was paid per performance. Good pay! But if I said no, that meant I wouldn’t have money for six months to come. So I thought, it has to work! I pushed my health and the stress to the side.
And there where people around me urging me, saying you can’t wait, its now or never.I did not study with Berith any longer. I had no one around me to guide me. No one with the experience, telling me I would last longer if I didn’t say yes to everything. I only said no if there was something in the calendar already. It wasn’t sustainable.
And Breaks Down…
Stella: What happened? When did you understand, this isn’t sustainable?
Gunilla: I had been two years in Stuttgart. I left to do Brünnhilde in Toronto. I went back to do one performance in Europe then over to Toronto again. That’s when my body just said NO!
I got more and more tired with vocal problems. It took longer and longer for my voice to recoup. It was no fun to sing any more!When I came home from Toronto 2006 I was finished! I had a couple of years in a haze. I don’t exactly remember… In 2007 my throat shut down! I couldn’t sing.
My marriage came to a halt. It had been cracking for some years.So I had to find something that was was fun and pleasurable again. I needed a stable address, to settle down.
It was a long process that I had denied. I didn’t listen to the signs. I didn’t understand them, cause everything was for the first time… It’s only you who will take care of yourself.
Life On The Road
Stella: There! Can you please talk more about that. The loneliness…
Gunilla: Yes! Exactly! That is precisely… Wait, I have to think if I ever went abroad without feeling homesick. I just sat there waiting for my performance so I could go home again. My children were at home…
Oh, the loneliness in a city where I would never have gone was it not for singing… What am I doing here? I had to persuade myself all the time. “It’s a nice theater, a good role.” Then all travel got connected with achievement. Still today I get angst from packing my suitcase!
Now at this point I can’t contain myself. I have a hysteric burst of laughter. Girlfriend – Can I relate! Before she continues I promise to send her my blog post on “packing”.
Gunilla: I really would like to get around that feeling. I was going to Vienna last week for a singing lesson with Christa Ludwig and felt that tug within me. (She shakes her head, looks over her shoulder, puts up both her hands in front of her as if she tried to stop something rushing towards her)Ouch – Packing is no fun, still!
The Agent Hegemony And YOUR Career!
Stella: I’m so happy you wanted to participate. You story is such a great testimonial of how it can be. What a grown up career can look like. Now in retrospect looking at promoting yourself. What had you needed then to take charge of your own career in a better way.
Here follows a long discussion on agents. She has had many, but only one of them seemed to care. She listened to Gunilla and gave valuable advice. Unfortunately that one stopped out of personal reasons. The only agent interest in her life! All of the others have only pushed her. You have to get out there! Just do it!
Ariadne auf Naxos in Malmö 2003. Together with Ingvar Wixell in his last role as Music Master.
Gunilla: They had such lack of knowledge and understanding about the voice! Both psychologically and how the voice functions, suitable repertory, things like that.
And no one ever talked about how important it is to market ones self. How to present ones self and the material you have.
I think many of us are very tired of the agent hegemony. Too few are connected to the agencies. Far too many never get a chance because they never get in the door!
And now, the way the world looks now with all of these recourses, like this one (Gesturing to us talking over Skype), it should be so much easier to expose yourself to the world, without having to show up at the agents homepage.
This has been my great dilemma lately, now when I’m ready again. It’s fun again. I’m back with my voice but I can’t reach out. Where is my spot?
Stella: I had a thought this morning while thinking about our meeting today. The way I foresee for the future is that theaters, producers, festivals etc. will be more interested in singers and musicians that know how to market themselves already.
Because then you can help them market the event and your part in it with those skills. It would be interesting to hear what you think about this: I foresee it will be mandatory to understand your own promotion. What are your thoughts about that idea?
Gunilla: In a way it sounds like a natural evolvement of the industry What I see, so far, as a real hindrance, is the conservative attitude within the opera community. There are so many holding onto this old… It’s like, well… Sometimes it’s like working in a museum…
Stella: I’m totally with you! (laughing)
Gunilla: We have to be more modern in our thinking. Why should opera be the exception, not having to deal with this reality? That’s what I feel! We have to look at how the world around us is changing. These are the roads traveled today. But within the opera world it’s still like 1955!
Look at those studying classical singing today. They look like singers from the 60’s! Little ladies and gentlemen. When I visit the Opera College of Stocholm I see them. It’s like they imagine the most important part is to be, look and speak like the singers from earlier generations.
And then I arrive, after a brisk walk with my dog; purple jacket, tights, sneakers, pink cap… Feeling like… No one takes me for a singer. They take me for a strange… like actor or the cleaning lady!
This conversation can’t be retold properly because I’m almost rolling on the floor laughing and Gunilla is swaying back and fort, arms swinging, telling her story constantly chuckling. Seriously, we are both over 50, we don’t have to play that game!
I’m also telling my story of entering this stuffy culture at the late age of 27, totally inappropriately dressed. Shaking my head in disbelief and thinking “I can’t do this act!”
Gunilla: We are living in THIS reality! Every other artform is reacting to politics, environmental issues… But opera holds on to values 100 years old, doing it as it was always done. It’s like I don’t belong. I want something different!!! I want to do my thing!
A Foot In Each World
Ariadne, Malmö Opera 2003. With late Lars Eric Jonsson
Stella: PLEASE, talk more about that! You’ve done all the grandios stuff, What is “your own thing”? Loooong pause while looking up into the ceiling.
Gunilla: I think about that day and night! I’m trained in the wold of “Big Classical Productions”. I know it well. But I don’t want to work in a museum. I want opera to be involved in todays society.
But I can’t put words to what I want to do, apart from using my voice. If someone called tomorrow asking me to sing Kundry at Bayerische Staatsoper. I would say YES! But if they wanted me to sing Erda, standing on my head in a vault somewhere, I would say YES to that too! It’s like having a foot in each world.
Here follows another long discussion on the old stories told and I air my “dream” of throwing out the old libretti, keep the music and tell new stories where there is no woman going insane before she must die! We need new stories pulling us forward instead of the once holding us back.
Stella: I want to be on the forefront, not lost in the backwaters! Ok, lets make a jump from here to the youth fetishism in opera. What do you have to say?
On Youth Fetishism
Gunilla: It’s evident! I do feel torn sometimes about telling my age. Even though in my heavy fach it’s not as vulnerable to be over 50. The problem for me now is those 6-7 years I needed to regain myself. Had I continued no one would have thought about me getting older.
It bothers me! I’ve done some auditions lately of which I felt great, but no. The gave the part to someone barely out of school instead. It wold be easier if someone told me “you sound like an old lady”. That I would understand, but I don’t! As long as my voice is fresh and I can move and deliver I can’t understand why they take someone without the 30 year experience I have.
Stella: What did you do during those years? I imagine they’ve added to your reference points more than taken anything away?
Gunilla: Yes absolutely! They have been calm good years. All I wanted was to feel at home in one place. I started working extra at a gym 2007.
I also started exercising there and take care of my health. I did yoga, started running. I got a dog! She’s lying right here beside me now.(Pats the dog) I’ve even run two marathons!
Gunilla: Yes! I run with my dog just about daily. I’ve also understood you can have a real life without going to Germany time and time again. And a very good life too! (Both laughing) But now I’ve come to a point I want less of gym and more singing, even though I’ve been very safe and secure these years! I feel much better in my body. My breathing is better.
I’ve met so many interesting people I would never have met if I only had only gone back and forth to rehearsals. For that I’m very grateful.But now I’m ready for change! The heavy years are behind me.
How To Be Reintroduced?
Stella: What are your dreams today? When you where young you had dreams. They where interrupted, you had children, a phenomenal breakthrough then a breakdown. And now? What is your thought on what will happen?
Gunilla: As we touched on before, I want to reach out. I’ve been away for a few years and people are under the impression I’m not sining any more. Or they don’t know I live in Sweden. What is she doing?
Therefore I want ot get out there, reintroduce myself, check out what’s happening.It would be wonderful to create a role within my register where I feel comfortable in a satisfying environment. Where I can use and contribute with all this experience I’ve accumulated over close to 30 years.
Stella: I understand. How do you plan to get there?
Gunilla Stephen is Isolde with Lars Cleveman as Tristan. Karlstad, year 2000. Behind the two, Stig Tysklind.
Gunilla: Yea, that’s the thing. That’s where you step into the picture! (Laughing, pointing at me) How do I use the resources? What do I do now? I realize I need a good recording. I’m working with my pianist to get that done.
And then what? How do I reach people? What venues are there? How do I use them? Like so many I have that lutheran yoke of being too humble. Afraid of appearing pushy, not daring to be upfront with myself.
But truth be told, I’m probably a better singer than someone without my background!My problem is not singing. I can sing. It’s joyful, but I feel like I run into a wall again and again!
Take A Listen! Gunilla Stephen Sings Isolde. Gustav Asplund at the piano.